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US man charged with al-Qaida tie faces trial

January 17, 2014

RALEIGH, North Carolina (AP) — A U.S. man charged with seeking to join an al-Qaida-linked militant group in Syria should face trial in July, a federal judge said Friday, even though prosecutors said they needed extra time to provide the man’s attorneys with intelligence data.

Basit Sheikh, 29, is charged with providing material support to a terrorist group for attempting to join Jabhat al-Nusra, which the U.S. government declared a terrorist organization.

Hewas arrested in November at a North Carolina airport at the start of what prosecutors say was a journey to fight in Syria’s civil war, which has killed more than 100,000 people.

Federal prosecutors wanted more time before trying Sheikh, arguing the Central Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency and other intelligence agencies needed time to look through data they might have while protecting spying sources and methods.

Prosecutors are required to find and give defense lawyers any information that might help prove a defendant is innocent.

The FBI says it has evidence collected by secret informants who corresponded online with Sheikh showing that he expressed a desire to join and fight with Jabhat al-Nusra. The FBI said he planned to sneak into Syria to join the fight against forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The judge last week rejected an attempt to free Sheikh on bail after deciding he was a flight risk and a danger to the community.

Sheikh has no criminal record, but during a November hearing his mother testified that the 29-year-old likely suffered from anxiety and depression, needed psychiatric help, lacked a job and spent all of his time on the Internet, the judge wrote.

Sheikh’s attorney said he was a student and active community volunteer who frequently posted pro-Islamic comments on Facebook. Sheikh was drawn into the idea of fighting in Syria through his online discussions with an FBI agent or confidential informant who was described as a female nurse in Syria, his attorney said.

At least in the beginning, “the communications between Mr. Sheikh and the ‘nurse’ were personal, and even romantic in nature,” wrote Robert E. Waters, a federal public defender representing Sheikh. Sheikh may have gone so far as to propose marriage to the FBI contact, Waters wrote.

The FBI has been on the lookout for Americans expressing interest in joining the Syrian conflict, where they could become radicalized by al-Qaida-linked groups and return to the U.S.

Sheikh’s case was at least the third last year in which the government charged U.S. residents with providing material support to a terrorist group based on their alleged efforts to join Jabhat al-Nusra.

Abdella Ahmad Tounisi, an 18-year-old from Chicago, was arrested in April at O’Hare International Airport as he prepared to join the group, authorities say. Tounisi pleaded not guilty.

In September, federal authorities in Virginia released a U.S. Army veteran accused of fighting alongside the group after a secret plea deal. Eric Harroun, 31, had faced up to life in prison. But defense lawyers argued that Harroun traveled to Syria planning to fight with the Western-backed Free Syrian Army and that fighting with the FSA was not a crime.

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Emery Dalesio can be reached at http://twitter.com/emerydalesio .

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